Mel Tormé Would Be Proud of Jazz Great Jennifer Leitham

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com July 13 2012 4:00 AM ET

One of the best documentaries on the festival circuit this year is I Stand Corrected, lesbian director Andrea Meyerson’s intimate and engaging portrait of Jennifer Leitham, the transgender bass player whose unusual technique and extraordinary talent has made her one of the most recognizable musicians in the jazz world.

Her career actually began decades ago when she was stil known as John Leitham — and her unusual left-handed techniques and passionate earned her a spot on more than 100 jazz recordings and a long gig with Mel Tormé. But after a lifetime of hiding her female identity at home in order to seek musical fame, Leitham couldn’t take it any more and decided to risk it all to start living life as the woman she always knew she was. She found some unlikely allies including The Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson. We caught up with both Leitham and Meyerson to talk about the movie, their careers, and what they hope audiences take away.

The Advocate: Jennifer, I love that you play the bass left handed, which most people don’t. Does that affect your music?
Jennifer Leitham: Makes it very difficult to obtain a decent instrument. I’m told I give people vertigo when they watch me play. My teacher used to and now my students relate to me as though I was in a mirror.

Mel Torme' was a huge part of your career, but he passed away before you came out publicly. How do you think he'd react?
Mel’s wife Ali came to one of my trio shows and we spoke about it. She felt that he would have been very accepting. The great composer/orchestrator Angela Morely was one of Mel’s top arrangers. She was the first transgender person I ever met. She gave me hope. Mel was totally accepting of her.

You've played with jazz greats and some of your influences have passed away. Of the people who most influenced you, how many were you able to come out to before they were no longer with us?
I was able to see several of them after I transitioned. Benny Carter and Louis Bellson were so warm and encouraging. Ray Brown told one of my best friends “The hard part is over. Now all she has to do is just play.” I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. Snooky Young was so beautiful about it; he pulled me through some pretty rough stuff. There are others too — so many have left the world in the last few years. Some are still with us, Bill Watrous still calls me to play, as does Ed Shaughnessy. Of course Doc Severinsen was very encouraging during my transition, and was highly supportive when I had some challenges after surgery. I’m very grateful for the wonderful interviews he gave for I Stand Corrected.

Andrea, what attracted you to Jennifer's story? How did you first hear of her story?
Andrea Meyerson: I used to produce an annual event called L.A. Women's Fest at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. It was a five-hour show featuring music and comedy by women and for women. In 2006, Logo has asked me to film the production to air on their network. Jennifer was the bassist for Sweet Baby J'ai who was one of our featured singers that year. 

When Jennifer was interviewed on film backstage, she revealed that she had transitioned and the Hollywood Reporter had just done a story on her. I was in the edit bay watching the footage and frankly, I was surprised and intrigued. I had no idea she was transgender. 

I saw her play solo a few months later and was completely mesmerized by her playing. I had never seen a bass player command the instrument like that before. I approached her that night and told her I may be interested in doing a documentary about her. We met shortly thereafter and connected beautifully and agreed to move forward. At that time, all the documentaries I had seen about transgender people were about the transition — the angst, the family, the partner, the doctor visits. I loved that Jennifer was living her life as she was meant to and was so positive and happy. I was really taken with her talent as a musician and her beautiful spirit as a person and felt we could really create an uplifting film that would both enlighten and entertain people.

 

Jennifer, what was it like working on this documentary with Andrea Meyerson?
Leitham: I’m really glad Andrea approached me about telling my story. She did an amazing job of creating a narrative and story arc with all of the clips and stills and interviews. She’s been interviewing me for the last five years. We’ve become good friends, and we both feel comfortable enough with each other to say what’s on our minds. I’m also really glad the focus of the film has remained on my music and career. She has my utmost gratitude and respect.

What’s next for you both?
Leitham: I’m working on my book. I wrote a memoir during all of the flights I made with Doc Severensen, usually writing at 7 a.m. at over 30,00 feet — lots of typos, so I’m still editing. I’m composing again, working on tunes for my next CD. Hopefully I’ll be going back into the studio in the next year. I’m playing with my trio as much as I can. We’re playing a wonderful Jazz Festival in Mammoth Lakes, California this weekend. I’m also trying to attend the screenings of the film as much as possible. There are upcoming premieres for I Stand Corrected in Los Angeles at Outfest July 16th and QFest in Philadelphia on July 19th and 20th.

Meyerson: I will be starting another documentary in August as well as producing and/or directing some projects for other production companies.

Since the film is at Outfest on July 16, I wonder what Outfest represents for you?
Meyerson: Outfest is the reason I'm a filmmaker. I have been really involved with Outfest for a very long time. I have always been a member and my organization, Women On A Roll, has been a community collaborator for about 15 years. I used to produce their women's events and had the opportunity to meet many of the filmmakers. My involvement with Outfest is truly what inspired me and gave me the confidence to make my first film, Laughing Matters. So, obviously having the Los Angeles premiere at Outfest is perfect. We are very excited about it and hope it is as well received here as it's been at other festivals.

What's the response been like at those festivals?
Meyerson: The response has been wonderful. We just completed the film in April and the world premiere was at the American Documentary Film Festival on April 3. That festival screening ended on a high note when we won the Audience Favorite Award for Best Film. That was particularly meaningful because it was a very mixed audience — gay and straight, old and young. We have played in a three other festivals since and also won the Audience Choice Award at Translations: Seattle Transgender Film Festival. I love seeing how much the audience falls in love with Jennifer after the film. I am so lucky to have the subject of my documentary not only be so talented and articulate, but extremely endearing as well.

This film seems really divergent from your other documentaries, Andrea, in style and form. I think it’s one of your best. 
Meyerson: Thank you. I didn't set out for this documentary to be different from my others, but given the topic, music, and history involved, I knew it would be. Actually when I first started working on this film, my intention was to make a short.  But that changed quickly after my first extensive interview with Jennifer. I immediately realized that her story was too interesting and important and the only way to honor it was to make it feature length.